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Could MCEC’s roof be the key to unlocking a decarbonised energy system in Southbank?

Could MCEC’s roof be the key to unlocking a decarbonised energy system in Southbank?
Sean Car

A leading expert in renewable energy and advisor to the City of Melbourne’s Power Melbourne program says Southbank could play “an important role” in enabling the next steps in a decarbonised Australian energy system, amid potential plans for an “inner-city solar farm” to be installed on the roof of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC).

Following Federal Labor’s election pledge to build a community battery in Southbank in partnership with the council, MCEC’s sustainability manager Jacinta Carabello confirmed with Southbank News that it was “exploring solar as a renewable energy option” .

“[MCEC is] in ongoing discussions with the City of Melbourne about how this can be achieved and have a positive environmental impact,” Ms Carabello said.

As reported in the March edition of Southbank News ahead of the May election, Labor MP for Macnamara Josh Burns and new Minister for Energy and Climate Change Chris Bowen announced that a victorious Albanese government would work in partnership with the council as part of its Power Melbourne program to identify an appropriate location for a Tesla battery in Southbank.

The federal government announced a number of community battery projects across the country as part of its Powering Australia plan to deliver 82 per cent renewables in the National Energy Market by 2030.

The council says its Power Melbourne project will build a neighbourhood-scale battery network and retail electricity offering to enable more renewable energy into the grid and “reduce power bills for consumers”. 

But in order for apartment dwellers of Southbank to effectively tap into the renewable energy revolution in the same way a record number of Australian households have through rooftop solar, an array of local renewable energy sources would be required.

As part of its clean energy program, Southbank News understands that the roof of MCEC or “Jeff’s Shed”, which offers up to around 70,000 sqm of space, is being explored as a potential option for a significant solar installation.

Chair of Electrical Power Systems at the University of Melbourne and program leader, Energy Systems at Melbourne Energy Institute Professor Pierluigi Mancarella said the opportunity for the installation “should be taken”.

“This sounds a great opportunity because a rooftop of that size that otherwise would be completely unutilised,” Professor Mancarella said.

“In addition to that, at the same time next to a precinct [Southbank] where there are really no other ways to really get solar energy – I think it’s a great opportunity that should somehow be exploited.”

Professor Mancarella, who is leading the research on the economic modelling for Power Melbourne – a program he described as “probably the most exciting project that we [as a city] have”, said community batteries were “so much more efficient” than household systems.

He told Southbank News that there were two reasons for this – “one is economy of share, and the other one is economy of scale.”

“When you look at individual solar PVs and solar batteries in individual homes like we are seeing a lot, eventually the cost of that setup is relatively expensive because you have a relatively small PV system and relatively small battery,” Prof Mancarella said.

“In addition to that, all you can do is locally exchange energy with the grid and in most cases, you can just try and maximise your own consumption because it’s really not profitable to sell back to the grid.”

Professor Mancarella said that particularly in a suburb like Southbank, where there was “so much diversity in the way electricity is used”, a community battery would allow power to be shared and stored according to demand.

“It really facilitates this economy of share of renewable energy that would otherwise not exist, particularly for households that do not have solar PVs [photovoltaic systems] and that is exactly what we’re talking about here,” he said.

“Effectively, the battery creates the tool, this platform, to share electricity between the producers, which would be the Exhibition Centre in this case, and then all these households that would normally not have the possibility of doing that.”

 

“Environmentally, it is efficient because basically now you are passing your solar energy to someone next to you who doesn’t have it. A community battery more generally allows all of this very efficient trading and sharing of this energy.”

 

When it came to the “economy of scale”, Professor Mancarella said larger community batteries were much cheaper than the cost of producing many individual units – “having a large photovoltaic system at the Exhibition Centre linked to a community battery is much more efficient than having, for example, the buildings having small solar PVs and small batteries.”

While the City of Melbourne wouldn’t confirm whether it was planning for the solar installation on MCEC’s roof, it told Southbank News that it was exploring a number of suitable locations for battery assets, including Council House 2, Library at the Dock, Queen Victoria Market and land owned by Power Melbourne partners.

It said it would consider a range of delivery options and decide on how to progress Power Melbourne later this year, and that community consultation would begin shortly to better understand how the community would like to be involved in the project, as well as preferred battery locations

“We’re completing a feasibility study with support from the Victorian Government to determine the most cost-effective way to deliver the project,” a council spokesperson said.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council was on a mission to become a city powered by 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and to achieve net zero emission by 2040.”

“Our ambitious Power Melbourne project will provide cheaper energy for local residents and small businesses, while reducing emissions and contributing to a more sustainable future,” Cr Capp said.

“We will continue to collaborate with state and federal governments to bring Power Melbourne to life and are open to exploring other opportunities for renewable energy generation.” 

With the federal government having recently enshrined a 2050 net zero emissions target into law, Macnamara MP Josh Burns said it was important to now move to the “next phase of delivery of renewable projects” like a community battery in Southbank.

“Investing in a clean, renewable future and getting on with climate action after a decade of neglect was the clear message I heard from Southbankers prior to the election,” Mr Burns said.

“Inner-city solar farms are an interesting idea and one I will be raising with the Minister [for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen], and I welcome further engagement by local government on this.”

“One of the projects I am most excited about, and which my first election commitment for the recent election, is the delivery of a community battery in Southbank. It’s going to be a gamechanger for locals, especially for renters.”

“This will mean stored, renewable energy, that the local community will be able to plug into and benefit from, even if you can’t put solar panels onto your roof.”

But with community distributed power models presenting a radical shift from the traditional consumer-retailer relationship, Professor Marcarella said the biggest challenge to a community battery was the changing regulatory and commercial environment.

With the economic studies and business case analysis for Power Melbourne currently focused on implementing a framework that is “flexible enough” to allow different projects to be successful in different contexts, he said projects like the one in Southbank were vital enablers in the transition to a decarbonised national energy system.

“Commercially, there is some complexity there that we need to understand and that’s where the major efforts are going and there are several trials with community batteries, including Power Melbourne,” Prof Marcarella said.

“These distributed PVs and community batteries are the first step of decarbonisation of the whole energy system particularly when you start looking to heating and transport, which by definition are community based.”

“Everything that is happening in the community system is an enabler to these next steps. So, in this sense that we play such an important role, not so much for what it’s doing now which is already great, but more so towards what it will enable later on which is decarbonisation of the whole energy sector in a way.”

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